The Romeo and Juliet of Mexico

This article was originally published in the Sunday Times.

When I was little, my father used to tell me stories about Mexico, where he worked for three years in the 1960s. He had travelled there from India, before settling in London. It was the first time he’d travelled abroad, and the contrast was so stark that it left a lasting impression: he would reminisce about Mexico at every opportunity and dazzle us with a few mouthfuls of broken Spanish.

The Mexico he talked about was the stuff legends are made of: a place where time began, where magical characters lived and transcendental things happened. I have drawn on the sense of mysticism he evoked many times in my writing. This year, finally, I set out to find the places he told us about. My objective was Oaxaca, 500km southeast of Mexico City, but en route I wanted to visit a typical Mexican town, and chose Puebla, an hour east of the capital.

Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer, said: “For Mexicans, colours shout so loudly that you cannot hear the silence of darkness.” This is so true. On every street corner in Mexico City there is some splash of vividness, or the promise of it, whether it’s the green uniforms of the schoolchildren or a sapphire sky painted on a wall. Only on the outskirts does the colour bleed away into an urban sprawl of uniform grey.

I am told by my driver, José, that the poor don’t paint their houses. “The moment they do,” he says, “they will be taxed, for colour is symbolic of wealth.”

This saddens me, because it is the poor who need colour most. Sensing my feeling, José says: “But you should see the inside of their houses.” I imagine the walls splashed defiantly with an explosion of paint, like a child’s finger painting; all the signs so far indicate that it would be this way.

José looks about 50 and is the image of the actor Charles Bronson. He insists on speaking to me in English, “for Spanish is the language of love”. Unsure of how to take this, I let him explain things in English, even though there are times when I feel Spanish might be easier. We head out towards Puebla, set among the mountains, and José points out two snow-clad volcanic peaks. Popocatepetl is tall and supposedly male, while

Iztaccihuatl (White Lady) is much smaller. As we drive, José tells me a Romeo and Juliet kind of story. It is the same one my father told me as a child. Iztaccihuatl is wrongly informed that her lover has been killed in battle, and dies, grief-stricken. When “Popo” returns and finds her body, he lays it out in the open and keeps vigil. Today, he is an angry volcano, ready to erupt at any moment against the inoffensive sunny sky. If you look carefully, José says, Iztaccihuatl has the form of a woman lying down. To please him, I pretend to see it, while hoping that this won’t cause offence to the wounded Popo.

I arrive in Puebla on Sunday. The town has a Spanish colonial feel, with grand churches and a huge cathedral built in the zocalo, or square. The zocalo is vibrant with balloon sellers and craftspeople selling little models of mythical beasts. Children are scattering across the square; musicians play, and couples both young and old dance spontaneously. Waiters bustle in the background, flitting between the customers who are people-watching on the terrazas.

Some of the buildings here have real majesty about them: one house in particular looks like it has been dripped in gold. In a passageway next door, I find an antiques market with rows of crafts, bric-a-brac and records. I pick up a small hand-carved wooden box and set about haggling for it with a toothless old man and his daughter. “If you tell me I’m handsome, I’ll lower the price by five pesos,” the man laughs.

“What if I said that you’re the most charismatic man I’ve met in ages?” I flatter. He smiles and says forget the box, if he were 40 years younger, he would marry me. As a novice barterer, I feel guilty about clawing 25 pesos off the original price and hand him 50 pesos more. Laden with curiosities, I make my way back to my hotel, and a dinner of mole, chicken served with a traditional bittersweet chocolate sauce.

The next day, José takes me to Cholula, 15km from Puebla, to see the largest pyramid ruins in the country. The people here wear much more traditional clothing and the architecture is different again. The churches appear less colonial – next to the Convento de San Gabriel’s mustard door, I notice brown angelic faces carved into the stone as opposed to white ones.

The pyramid, built between 200BC and AD800, is embedded in a hill, on top of which stands a simple, beautiful church. It is possible to walk through the tunnels at the base of the pyramid – an eerie feeling. I manage to find my way out and come upon the open-air excavations of several shrines. It’s truly humbling to think that a civilisation built this with none of our know-how, guided mostly by intuition. I am overwhelmed by feelings of timelessness and peace, but José reminds me there is a five-hour drive ahead of us, to Oaxaca.

As we drive through the Sierra Madre mountains, he points out vegetation in every kind of green. By the end of our journey, the landscape has changed into arid, red desert. We reach Oaxaca, set deep within a valley, and head straight for town.

The zocalo here even outdazzles Puebla. Balloons are everywhere and mariachi singers break into song at even the slightest encouraging smile. The air smells of hot chocolate and freshly baked bread, and the aroma lures me into the most animated market I’ve ever seen. Here, women with braided hair and fine jewellery wrap up their babies in hand-embroidered blankets, resting them on the counters as they sell their goods. There are racks of fruit, spices, chillies, cheeses and other edibles – I’m especially taken by the enormous tortillas and the dried grasshoppers – and there are locally woven rugs and jet-black pots.

The vendors are mostly wise-looking old-timers: the women look as though they hold many secrets. I want to follow these characters home, and ask José if we can visit the villages outside Oaxaca, where all this stuff is made. He looks slightly baffled at first, but we spend the next few days doing exactly that.

In San Bartolo Coyotepec we meet Valente Nieto, the son of Doña Rosa, who became famous throughout Mexico for her perfectly round black pots, made entirely without a wheel. Valente continues the tradition, sharing few secrets. In Teotitlan, the Gonzalez family invite us into their home and demonstrate how they use the cochineal bug to make bright red dye for tapestry work. Señora Gonzalez is probably 80, and despite the many lines etched into her face, there is youthfulness in her eyes.

Each of these families passes down not only heritage, but their passion for fine detail. I find this everywhere in Oaxaca: from the starched white aprons of the waiters, to the embroidered blankets in which babies are wrapped, to the three yellow flowers placed fresh every day in my room.

José says he’s saving the best for last, and on our penultimate day he takes me to Monte Alban. Built high on a flattened mountaintop more than 2,500 years ago, this was the first city in North America. I can only describe it as like a lost city of the gods. As I walk among the temples, shrines and altars, the afternoon sunlight turns everything to shimmering gold. I find some narrow steps overlooking what might have been an observatory. I sit here for hours. The energy of the place is tangible, and I feel completely revived. Fearing I’ve gone missing, José comes to find me.

Having been enveloped by the colour and the culture of the people, I find it incredibly difficult to leave Mexico. It makes perfect sense, now, why my father carried these places with him and transported himself back here whenever he could. He did it without exaggeration.


Tagged as .

Leave a Reply